DES MOINES, Iowa -- Donald Trump's veterans' rally at Drake University started with a stark admission from the GOP front-runner: "I didn't want to be here. I have to be honest with you."
The sentiment didn't seem to dampen the crowd's enthusiasm, which waited several hours in line in the cold and a couple before the candidate took the stage on Thursday to launch into a relatively standard stump speech -- the trade deficit, foreign policy, etc. -- that wove in nods to veterans' sacrifices.
"I think he's going to talk about us, the veterans. That's the reason we're here. The reason I'm here," Daniel J. Gannon, a Vietnam veteran and board member of the Iowa Commission of Veterans Affairs, said before the rally started. "No other candidate has put on an event just for veterans."
Still, Gannon pointed to the raucous, crowded turnout at Drake's picturesque Sheslow Auditorium and allowed that the Trump campaign was utilizing service members in a way that demanded attention, and detracted from the debate at the Iowa Events Center.
"He trumped everybody else," Gannon said, adding, "You hear comments, 'well, he's using veterans.' He's not using veterans. Anytime anyone wants to talk about veterans, do you get something from that? Yeah. Hopefully they get some votes."
Trump skipped Thursday night's presidential debate after feuding with debate sponsor Fox News. While he and his campaign were effusive about how his alternative event was all about the veterans, he said he couldn't bring himself to take part in the debate downtown because he was being mistreated. It was a theme he returned to repeatedly at the Drake rally.
"You have to stand up for your rights when you're treated badly," Trump said, adding, "like this Iran deal. We have to stick up for our country when we're being mistreated."
And that mistreatment is being applied to the military and veterans, the real estate mogul emphasized.
"Our vets are being mistreated. Illegal immigrants are treated better than our vets in some cases," he said, touching on another issue, immigration, that helped vault him to front-runner status.
Trump boasted of raising nearly $6 million in donations for DonaldTrumpforVets.com since announcing his plan to ditch the debate and hold the veterans rally, and named some of its major donors.
One of those donors, businessman Phil Rothman, was at the rally, and Trump brought him on stage to retell that he had sent Trump $1 million once for use in his political endeavors and Trump had sent the check back. Lucky for Rothman, though, Trump was able to find another destination for that money.
"My wife and I will donate $1 million to," Rothman said, pausing before finishing the statement, "your charity." He did not name DonaldTrumpforVets.com.
Trump also welcomed two opponents, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, to the stage and encouraged them to say a few words. Both men, far behind Trump in the polls and who came to rally after taking part in the GOP "undercard" debate, acknowledged the awkwardness of attending their rivals' rally.
"I'm going to stand a little bit over here so I'm not photographed with the Trump sign," Santorum said, referring to the Trump placard on the stage's podium.
"I figure you'll get the photo anyway, so I'll just stand here," Huckabee said.
Both men gave shout-outs to veterans and their sacrifices, but the moment was an awkward one.
Trump also brought to the stage John Wayne Walding, a Green Beret and combat veteran who lost his leg in Afghanistan in a firefight, introducing him as "John Wayne."
But if Trump ultimately yearned to be at the debate, Republicans at the Iowa Events Center went out of their ways to say how little they missed him. And it wasn't just the ones on the stage who were benefiting from Trump-less national airtime.
"Not having Donald Trump there certainly might have reduced eyeballs, but it also reduced the shadow of his presence and allowed the candidates on stage to have a more substantive debate," Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., said afterward. "I thought it got better as it went along, and particularly the immigration back and forth was very interesting. And I'm hoping that people watching were able to really see some strength of candidates that they hadn't had a chance to see because of Trump's domination of the previous debates."